Interview Issue Eight Sam Coyne

Island of colour

Tobermory turns its hands to gin

Tobermory, the only whisky distillery on the Isle of Mull, has expanded its distilling portfolio to produce new Tobermory Gin. Taking inspiration from the colourful of Mull, we get to know Stephen Woodcock, Tobermory distilleries manager. 

What are the challenges of turning a well-known whisky distillery into a site for gin production? What are the opportunities that come with that?

Tobermory Distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, producing one of the oldest single malts. Creating a gin on the same site was never going to be easy, despite our track record of producing different spirit types. When the product launches, it will make us the first established single malt distillery to use our name on a gin.

By using our name on the gin and distilling them at the same distillery, though, we don’t want our consumers to feel like we’re taking the focus away from the whisky. We had to make sure that people are aware that Tobermory whisky will still be one of priorities going forward and we haven’t lost sight of the original use of
the distillery. 


The other challenges come from the actual production of the gin – the way gin is made and produced is completely different to how whisky is distilled and so we faced the challenge of adapting the skills our team have in whisky production and training them in gin production, which was never going to be easy. But all this has come together to create what is unique to Tobermory Gin and it’s one of the opportunities we have by being a well-established whisky distillery. We’ve been able to experiment by adding a splash of spirit from the Tobermory whisky stills, creating a standout character, unlike any other. Named ‘botanical #1’, hours of hard work and experimentation were involved in creating the perfect balance for the splash, which I believe is what makes Tobermory Gin so special. 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in distilling?

My career actually began in chemistry. I managed chemical plants which created coloured pigments for the paint, ink and plastic industries. However, both my parents worked in the drinks industry – my father owned a pub and my mother worked for Allied Distillers – so it was a world I knew well and was drawn back to quickly after.  

I undertook my General Certificate in Distillation at Dundashill Cooperage in Glasgow and when that closed in 2010, moved to Speyside to take charge of the multi-million-pound upgrade and commissioning of Inchgower Distillery in Buckie. Working with several different Speyside distilleries after this, I also completed my IBD Diploma in Distilling.

And then I joined Distell, working since then to protect the traditions of each distillery while refining and improving processes so it continues to make the finest whiskies in the world.

With your gin recently launched (by the time this magazine hits shelves), why did you choose to release your gin in 2019? What do you see in the industry that says to you the time is right for Tobermory Gin?

2019 has been an important year for us. We re-opened the doors of the distillery and fired up the stills after a period of renovation and maintenance. This provided us with the perfect opportunity to bring a new product, Tobermory Gin, with us as we embark on an exciting next chapter. 

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Gin is more popular than ever and it’s a really exciting time in the gin industry. The industry has become very similar to wine or whisky, in a sense, with people looking to seek out unique flavours and styles from all over the UK. Using a splash of spirit from our famous whisky stills, along with a mix of botanicals, some hand foraged on the island, Tobermory Gin really is something different for the gin market, with an interesting story to tell as well as a high quality and unique spirit.

How is your gin inspired by the Mull? What cues have you taken and is there a characteristic in the spirits that you would say transcends both your gin and whiskies?

Ensuring a true taste of the island is hugely important to the blend. This is demonstrated with the inclusion of a pinch of Hebridean tea, grown by a locally on Mull or the local botanicals picked in season to strengthen and enhance flavour profile. Anyone who has visited will have seen the hillsides purple with heather at certain times of year. 

Botanicals aside, Mull is a place that celebrates creativity and is expressive in nature. This is evident in the colourful houses of Tobermory, framed by the rich and dramatic landscape of the island. This passion for art in nature isn’t just reflected in the harbour waters, but in the distinctive spirits we craft here at our coastal distillery. Everything we make, from our whisky to this new gin, is an expression of the rich palate that our Hebridean home provides. 

How would you describe the Tobermory Hebridean Gin?

Tobermory Gin is quite unique – it almost has a layered complexity where it’s light and fresh but perfectly balanced with a rich maltiness. It’s packed full of fresh juniper and citrus which comes not only from the botanicals but also from the new make spirit. The new make adds an orange zest note, with a lovely hint of coriander, making it quite a diverse drink. The creamy mouth-feel also really makes it stand out.

Where do people drink gin on the Island of Mull? Is there a local enthusiasm for gin? 

The gin boom is happening everywhere so the locals, or “Mullochs” as they’ve come to be known have definitely embraced a gin from their own backyard. They are passionate about local produce and let’s not forget the distillery itself is already entrenched in the area’s history. Fans of the whisky will also be able to enjoy the gin now. 

What are the ambitions for gin at Tobermory? Can we expect further expressions down the line?

Definitely. As part of the new positioning we’re always looking at new ways to develop and evolve the brand as a whole – to continue the creativity. We’re currently working on lots of exciting things for the future, so watch this space.

What’s your recipe for a Gin & Tonic?

Tobermory Gin is best served in a balloon glass with ice, topped with chilled tonic water. The taste of fresh juniper balanced with sweet orange and lemon comes through clearly, with hints of coriander and gentle herbs and spices. The serve has a luxurious, creamy taste with the subtle hint of sweet malt. Garnished which a sprig of thyme, a slice of fresh bloodred orange and a dash of dried hibiscus flowers, the finish is long, fresh and citrusy.

If fans of Tobermory Hebridean Gin would like to try further products distilled by the distillery, which liquids would you introduce them to?

I’d encourage them to try our new signature expression – Tobermory 12-years-old, which marked our return to production earlier this year. Using non-peated barley and water from our private source, the whisky is a celebration of the history of our distillery. 

What other gins do you admire?

We’ve been really impressed by the gins from some of our closest neighbours, such the Isle of Harris Distillery. It’s an exciting time for Hebridean Gins in general, each one unique and bursting with flavour and we can’t wait for Tobermory Gin to fly the flag for Mull. 


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